Back in the fall of 2012 when she began the whole college application process, Valerie Hurst was feeling some ambivalence.
The thought of picking a place where she would spend the next four years — not to mention a whole lot of money — without really knowing where she wanted to be or what she wanted to be doing, didn’t seem ideal to her.
“I didn’t want to head off to college, spend all that money, without having a clear direction in mind,” the 2013 Davis High School graduate said.
But like so many of her classmates at Davis High at the time, Hurst dutifully completed those applications and sat back to see where her future might lie — until her mom, Linda, found Global Citizen Year online. The bridge-year program sends American students who have just finished high school to countries in Latin America and Africa for a year of service and leadership training.
Fellows, as the participants are called, live with a host family while apprenticing with a local organization and learning the language and customs of that country. It was right up Hurst’s alley, as she’d always wanted to travel abroad and learn new languages.
She found herself at the tail-end of the application process in March, but managed to get her papers in on time and learned soon enough that she had been selected to spend the coming school year in Ecuador, with grants covering nearly all of her costs. Hurst left Davis in August and after some training seminars at Stanford University, headed to Quito along with 50 other fellows.
“It was pretty overwhelming,” Hurst said of the culture shock, “because I didn’t speak Spanish.”
After a brief acclimation period in the capital city, Hurst headed to her host family’s home in a small city in the south of Ecuador.
The family, Hurst said, “were a little shy at first, especially my host mom, but by the end, I was like one of her daughters. They shared everything they had with me.”
Her days in Ecuador were busy — Mondays were spent in Spanish class and the rest of the week working at an orphanage where Hurst helped cook, clean and care for the children, who were between the ages of 6 months and 14 years. Some had special needs and many came from homes where there had been alcoholism or abuse. When she wasn’t in school or at the orphanage, Hurst was with her host family, watching telenovellas with her mom, running errands and visiting other relatives. She also traveled to the Amazon and the Galapagos Islands, and attended occasional seminars with the other fellows living in the region.
“We’d talk about what we were feeling, the challenges we faced,” Hurst said. “But I felt very supported there.
“I never missed home,” she said of her time in Ecuador. “I was completely happy, being in the moment and being there for nine months.”
The hardest thing was learning to communicate with people, but by the time she left, her Spanish was so advanced she could understand everything anybody said. And she was a changed person.
“I’m more directed in what I want to do in my life,” Hurst said. “I want to do something that makes an impact on people. I also feel more confident in myself — that whatever I want to do, I can do. I can get myself anywhere. And I’m really happy with myself.”
She plans to study international relations and Spanish, and possibly environmental science, at Allegheny College.